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Computer and internet technology continues to advance at a breakneck pace with little abatement in sight. Undoubtedly, this technology sector has offered more bang for the buck for consumers and businesses than any other technological advancement of the 20th Century. A few personal anecdotes to prove my point:
  • My first computer, which cost several thousand dollars in 1980, possessed 64K memory and mass storage consisting of two floppy drives. With four floppy drives on the system (I purchased two additional drives for $1,800.), alphabetically reordering a flat-file customer database took in excess of six hours. The identical procedure on a desktop computer system today costing around $500 would take at most a few seconds to perform.
  • While a high school student, I recall having to beg my parents to drive me to Philadelphia, over an hour away, to research a report on spectroscopy because the local library had no references on the subject. Such information can now be acquired on your desktop over the Internet.
  • Many of us remember making extensive use of the typewriter and the slide rule in our earlier days. These devices are now virtually extinct, replaced by computers, handheld calculators, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other mobile devices such as the iPhone. Anyone using a typewriter or slide rule is considered to be an anachronism.
Technology is always a mixed blessing, however, making our lives at the same time both simpler and more complex. Computer and internet technology is no exception to this rule. The rapid advance of computer and internet technologies makes it difficult for the casual computer user and the seasoned professional alike to keep up with new industry developments and products.

In the not-too-distant past the main vehicle for real-time at-a-distance communication was the telephone. At the advent of the Computer Age the telephony system had become a widely-used, highly reliable communications medium within industrialized nations. Problems were most frequently limited to difficulty and expense in making overseas connections, disconnected or poor quality long distance calls, caller misdials (usually resulting in a polite apology — something rarely heard today) and a very rare telemarketer who was always a real person.

Now, in the still fledgeling Information Age, our telephone lines are routinely inundated by annoying recorded telemarketing messages and internet connections enable our computers to be assaulted by spyware, viruses, worms and hackers bent on doing everything from simply being annoying to turning our lives into living hell by destroying data, pilfering proprietary business secrets and personal information, and launching denial of service (DoS) attacks.

The end result of the information mayhem accompanying the birth of the Information Age is a steady increase in overall cost of the software and hardware systems required to run and safeguard our equipment and data, even as equipment costs per unit of computing power plummet. Furthermore, the complexity of today’s computer systems and the amount of knowledge required to operate them effectively leaves many computer users baffled and frustrated by devices which should be serving as useful productivity tools.

The situation will improve. Keys to reliability of communication in the Information Age include education, standardization and the continued evolution of the Internet as a business conveyance. In a business environment, economics is the driver of innovation. The huge masses of internet users and potential internet users hungry for information and services delivered with the touch of a button or a spoken command demand understanding and simplification. The economic muscle these users wield requires that computers and the Internet evolve into a unified structure accessible in virtually any place at any time — by anyone.

We are already seeing these changes taking place. Children today are much more comfortable and capable with modern computers than are their parents because they have been raised and educated in an environment that fosters computer use. The adoption of the Plug and Play standard has made it unnecessary for a computer user to know how the equipment he or she is using actually works and has reduced the likelihood of adverse interactions between system components. While not perfect, Plug and Play promises to eventually free the user completely from the tedium of consulting a manual each time they wish to install a new device. Operating systems must achieve a melding with hardware and application programs that remains elusive, while at the same time merging seamlessly with the needs of the end user. eCommerce is just beginning to come into its own, but is the driving force behind most of the computer and internet changes we will witness in the foreseeable future.

The last 25 years have ushered in the Computer Age and seen the birth of the Internet and the Information Age. Over the next 25 years we will experience remarkable changes that will rival or quite possibly exceed those having already taken place. Computer interfaces will be incorporated into an ever increasing number of environments in which we work, travel and play. The Internet will continue its expansion and will be utilized for a widening variety of applications such as remotely regulating household appliances and diagnosing the condition of your car while you drive. Internet access may become entirely wireless as computer usage grows increasingly mobile. It will be beneficial to be an end user of these new technologies, fascinating to watch the changes as they occur, challenging to keep up with them if your career path is in information technology, and rewarding if you are an entrepreneur or investor positioned to capitalize on the ongoing growth and innovation.


Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.  Original article published 3 May 2004, updated 5 December 2009.


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